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Long Beach joins the national 'parklets' trend

Three restaurants have won city approval to convert a few highly valued parking spaces into green space. In some cities, the parklets are open to the public, but these will be for patrons' use only.

January 07, 2012|By Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Berlin bistro owner Kerstin Kansteiner and architect Michael Bohn hold his design of a parklet to be built in front of the restaurant.
Berlin bistro owner Kerstin Kansteiner and architect Michael Bohn hold… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

A section of Long Beach's popular Retro Row soon will be giving customers a different kind of curbside treatment.

Three businesses have won city approval to convert a few highly valued parking spaces along the 4th Street corridor into green space, joining a national trend led by San Francisco, where the number of so-called parklets jumped from six in 2010 to more than 20 now.

Construction of Long Beach's parklets — the first in Southern California, according to city officials — is expected to begin as early as next week. They will be for private use as dining or seating areas amid lush greenery.

"It's been an idea of ours for a while after visiting other cities like Palo Alto," said Mike Conway, Long Beach's director of public works.

Such sidewalk allure doesn't come cheaply, though. Store owners can pay up to $20,000 or more for each installation.

"But that amount translates into safety, visibility and extra seating space that can be made up over the next few years," said Kerstin Kansteiner, president of the 4th Street Business Assn. and owner of the Berlin bistro, one of the three businesses that will have parklets.

In L.A., plans are underway to install parklets at three businesses on Spring Street, said Patti Berman, president of the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood council. Berman, however, said they are still trying to raise $40,000 for two of the projects.

Long Beach has no such problem. Along Retro Row, Lola's Mexican Cuisine and Number Nine, a Vietnamese fusion restaurant, are part of a quarter-mile stretch of edgy, eclectic storefronts. Both restaurants joined the parklet program.

"We thought it was a great idea," said Luis Navarro, the owner of Lola's. "It was something different, and I could imagine people sitting on this parklet, eating food and drinking beer under the sun."

Kansteiner agreed. "It brings more green space, and it's attractive to diners," she said.

The three restaurant owners have partnered with Studio One Eleven, an architecture and urban design company based in Long Beach.

According to Lola's design plan, which the city approved in November, the two curbside parking spaces in front will be permanently occupied by a wooden deck 30 feet long by 7 feet wide. The raised platform will adjoin the edge of the sidewalk. Five tables and 19 chairs will be placed on the deck for patrons to use. Additionally, several pots and planters filled with greenery, such as foxtail agave, blue chalk sticks and spreading rush will be lined up along the parklet's edge.

At Number Nine, the deck will measure 26 feet long by 7 feet wide. Designers will use Asian-inspired landscaping such as bamboo and horsetail plants, which will provide a measure of privacy.

For Retro Row, which has been enjoying a renaissance, the parklets are seen as a good fit.

For years, this part of 4th Street was made up of vintage clothing and furniture stores that would close by 6 p.m., Kansteiner and Navarro said. But in recent years, the corridor has become a destination spot with the introduction of restaurants, wine bars and a newly renovated movie theater. A parking lot was added at the corner of 4th and Cherry Avenue.

"It's changed the perception of the street, and that's the concept of the parklet," Kansteiner said. "I think, for the near future, it will make the street livelier."

There is no doubt parklets have proved to be popular, whether for public or private use, including San Francisco's Pavement to Parks program. In 2005, a San Francisco art and design studio called Rebar picked a single metered parking space, rolled out sod, plopped down a potted tree and a bench and fed the meter, all in an effort to raise awareness for more urban open space.

Four years later, the Bay Area city had fallen in love with parklets. New York and Philadelphia followed with their own programs. Now it's Long Beach's turn.

"Everyone was pulling on the end of the same rope," Kansteiner said of the collaboration that was needed to make it happen.

Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal, whose district includes Retro Row, puts it more simply.

"The planets had lined up," she said.

"That alignment had to be on the city and private sector side, as well as funding, so it's really rare to have all these things line up."

But in a parking-crunch town such as Long Beach, it's unclear how residents and visitors will react to the parklets.

"It's not a good idea," said Sara Zamudor, 25, who had been vacationing for several weeks in Long Beach. "I'm very pro-green, but there's not that many parking spaces out here."

Edward Melendez, who works in Long Beach and visits Retro Row about once a week, said he has mixed feelings.

"I totally would like to see that, but I also see the danger of it; the danger of big buses," Melendez said. "It would be quite the spectacle, sitting outdoors, literally on the street."

Resident Natalie Viramontes, 27, said parking has been "a major issue" but that "as long as they're giving something back and not just expanding their businesses ... then I'm for it."

City officials said they have taken steps to assuage critics, including repainting curbs to add a few more parking spaces along Retro Row.

"The traffic engineer approved the preliminary [designs]. He looked at traffic patterns, parking and street cleaning; he looked at all aspects before stamping on that," Conway said.

The parklets are revocable too. Outdoor dining permits will be reviewed on an annual basis and if renewal is denied, the owner will have to remove the parklet.

Long Beach officials, who already bill their town as the "most bike friendly city in America," say they also hope residents will leave the car keys at home.

"I'm not concerned about losing a parking space for this reason," Lowenthal said. "This is the trade-off and it's such a positive one."

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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